Friday, July 29, 2011

Angry Conversations with God - A Review

A few weeks ago, I challenged people to consider how "real" their relationship with God was, using an analogy of a person who "loved" Johnny Cash from afar. That illustration helped to show that real relationships have highs and lows. They have "bad" days. Real relationships are hard.

By that standard, Susan E. Isaacs, author of Angry Conversations with God, most definitely has a real relationship with God.

As the sub-title suggests, the book is a "spiritual memoir," as Isaacs tells of her struggles to understand God. While she starts from a broadly evangelical childhood, it quickly becomes clear in the narrative that the people who represented God in her life did at least as much to damage her understanding of who God is as they did to help her. This kind of tale has been told many times over by countless evangelicals and ex-evangelicals. It is therefore no surprise to learn that Isaacs rebelled against this upbringing.

What especially intrigued me about Isaacs' particular story was not simply the honesty with which she expressed her frustrations at the image of God she had been given to understand, but the tenacity with which God seemed to remain in her life through so much of the turmoil she'd been through. Isaacs alternates from heartfelt attempts to restore her relationship with God through various Christian traditions (often with increasingly disappointing — if not damaging — results) to attempts to run away from such traditions altogether. Even when Isaacs desperately wants to ignore God, she finds that she simply can't. Even though she sees other people apparently living perfectly happy lives without God, she finds herself failing to achieive that happiness whether "with" God or "without" God. Why can they be happy without God if she can't be happy at all? Does God have something against Isaacs personally? Is God like an abuser in a bad relationship?

Isaacs' story is punctuated by a series of conversations that take place in the context of counseling.  Specifically, a type of "couples therapy" whereby Isaacs works with a counselor to deal with her issues with God as a married couple would work on their issues with a counselor. This necessitates bringing God (and Jesus, as a separate person, with "God" explicitly short-hand for "the Father") into the conversation. This is explained as Isaacs doing a kind of acting (she is, in fact, an actor and screenwriter with numerous television and film credits) so that when "God" (or "Jesus") speaks, it sometimes must be made clear (in the context of the counseling sessions themselves) that the person speaking may not be truly God, but rather Isaacs' perception of God. But even with that knowledge, the true person of God seems to surface at some surprising moments. Indeed, at one point in the narrative, "Jesus" even abandons the therapy sessions (and thereby Isaacs) for a time so that Isaacs must suffer her own "Dark Night of the Soul" and learn the difference between who God really is and her impressions of God.

Ultimately, this is not a book for people looking for answers to their questions about God. It is not truly a book that answers the age-old question of why God lets bad things happen to good people (although it sometimes might appear on the surface to be attempting to do this). Rather, it is a book that encourages the believer to stop looking for people to blame — whether God or God's people — for the things that go bad in life. That's not to say that it's about accepting responsibility for one's own actions (although it does do that) so much as it attempts to recognize that "stuff happens," that all people are messed up (a section where she realizes that even a Christian authority figure is "just a guy" — a phrase she uses a few times — reminds me of Gag Halfrunt's assessment of Zaphod Beeblebrox: "Zaphod's just this guy, you know?"), and that God truly does care enough about us to walk alongside us and help us muddle through.

As a friend used to say to me years ago, "go ahead and be angry with God. God can take it."

Disclaimer: While reading this book, I learned that my wife has met Isaacs through the church in which my wife works as a priest. Since I've never met Isaacs, myself, this should not color my review too much, but I put that out there for what it's worth.

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